Thursday, I flew to meet a pilot friend for lunch. Sounds routine, doesn’t it? But Uwe Goehl, Canadian Airbus captain who flies the world for a Middle-Eastern airline, lives in faraway Abu Dhabi. We last met six years ago, so when Uwe enrolled in hot-air balloon training just across the state line at Hurricane, Utah, I jumped at the chance to reconnect. As always when bound for unfamiliar airports, I phoned ahead.
“As long as you’re not staying over the weekend,” said Art Granger, manager of Hurricane’s General Dick Stout Field Airport (1L8). “We’re closing the runway for reconstruction Monday morning—you wouldn’t want to get stuck here for three months.”
That got my attention. Sure, I planned only a day trip, but what if delayed by weather or an unexpected mechanical problem? I remembered my friend Julie, whose airplane was stranded at another airport when runway reconstruction started two days early and she couldn’t leave. So I arranged to meet Uwe at nearby St. George Regional Airport (KSGU), instead.
St. George is only 150 miles from Flagstaff, but over a stunningly remote route. Halfway lies none other than the Grand Canyon, followed by the uninhabited “Arizona Strip.” En route, only Grand Canyon National Park Airport reports weather, beyond which there are no airstrips, towns, nor even ranches for 100 miles. So while excited, I obsessively double-checked my survival kit, outerwear, water, and energy bars…
“Beware—the airport you fly into every day is not the same airport at night,” my friend Donna Wood observed last year.
As a new private pilot, Wood had invested in a Cessna 182 and launched on ambitious regular flights between her Detroit home and Charleston, South Carolina, where she has family and business.
Wood is exceptionally careful and diligent, but 18 months after earning her wings, she’d experienced a scare. Battling u
nforecast headwinds from South Carolina with her nonpilot husband, Roger, the couple had arrived home after dark.
“I was legally night current,” Wood said the next morning, “but wasn’t planning on night flight.” Her first challenge was finding urban Oakland/Troy Airport (VLL) under Detroit Class Bravo airspace, landlocked by obstacles and buildings. “All I saw were lights, everywhere.” Then, on the downwind leg of the traffic pattern, the runway lights—activated by a previous aircraft—went out.
Rattled, she keyed the mic too quickly to reactivate them. Fortunately, her former CFI Wayne Hendrickson was waiting to help hangar the airplane, and triggered the lights with his handheld radio.
Now flustered, Wood turned final for Troy’s obstructed 3,549-foot runway, high and too fast. So, she went around. But this time she flew downwind too near the runway and overshot final, destabilizing her approach. This began a dangerous chain of events…
“You’re So Vain…you flew your Learjet…to see the total eclipse of the sun,” taunted my friend Tom Lippert from the old Carly Simon song.
We laughed because he and his wife Laurel had just flown their Cessna 182, Henry, from Truckee, California, to meet our Flying Carpet in Hailey, Idaho for this year’s celestial event. Jean and I had originally planned to fly to Oregon, but amid predictions of gridlocked airports and roads I’d phoned Laurel and Tom, asking if and where they planned to view the eclipse.
“Greg, that’s three months away!” Laurel had chuckled. But upon learning that hotels and airport ramps were already filling, she proposed we rendezvous in Sun Valley where friends would loan us their condo. For 38 years, Jean has endured stories about the time I flew to Canada for a mid-winter total solar eclipse, on a weekend she had to work. (Flying Carpet, March, 2002) Now, finally, I hoped to share the experience with her.
As media hype grew, however, so did our concerns. Would there be room to land and park? Would the weather cooperate? Could we count on ground transportation? Should we bring groceries, assuming restaurants would be full and stores empty?
Then there was the route—traversing high mountains across Arizona, Utah, and Idaho, and transitioning Salt Lake City’s mountain-ringed Class Bravo airspace…